Is that dark chocolate in your Easter basket good for you?
That depends on whether the dark chocolate has the cocoa flavanols that will lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol.
Only one patented, proprietary process of chocolate production conserves the naturally occurring flavanols that come from cacao beans, the source of cocoa. The patent is held by a family-owned chocolate company whose focus for the past 10 years was to develop a heart-healthy indulgence. Another big chocolate company tried to infringe on the patent process along the way, but its label reads very differently from the family-owned chocolate company's. Don't be fooled by "natural source of flavanol antioxidants."
The cacao bean is one of the richest sources of flavanols, but, unless the patent process is used, the content of flavanols in raw cacao beans changes during chocolate production. Manufacturers roast, ferment, pulverize and even alkalize cocoa, which destroys the flavanols.
So what about studies that report improvement in blood pressure and blood flow through arteries in patients with cardiovascular disease? A close look shows that the cocoa source used in these studies comes from the company with the patent and the proprietary process. Even the news release about the March FASEB Journal article titled "Dark Chocolate Deters Atherosclerosis" needs to be read with scrutiny. It includes this: "study participants received either specially produced dark chocolate with high flavanol content or chocolate that was regularly produced." Researchers call that "stacking the deck" for showing dark chocolate is healthy.
Because there is no standard method for analyzing flavanols in foods, the consumer often believes that a higher cacao amount (70 percent, 72 percent, 86 percent) is a sign of more flavanols. Unfortunately, some people are consuming hundreds of extra calories a day thinking they are eating healthy. Flavanols are bitter-tasting, so sugar (usually at least 3 teaspoons per serving) is added.
Your best bet for consuming any flavanols is to add 2 tablespoons of natural cocoa powder to coffee, a warm coconut beverage, oatmeal or yogurt. Another way is to make a chocolate dressing for fruit salads.
Betty Wedman-St Louis is a nutritionist and environmental health specialist in Pinellas County who has written numerous books on health and nutrition. Visit betty-wedman-stlouis.com.